Much of my music production time is spent making tiny changes, often because I can’t figure what more significant thing I need to do.
So I go small.
Here’s the scene: the piece is just okay, and progress on it is just okay, and the finished thing may too be destined to be just okay. But now the game’s on to make the music better than its present state of just okayness. The question is how? I sense that the music is missing something fundamental. What’s missing is not as simple as a “B” section or yet another part that fits just so. What I need to do is what I don’t yet know how to do—like somehow melt down the music into a few form, or make it disintegrate, or multiply itself, or distill it further. While my materials are better than ok (I like the sounds), they’re being held back than my just okay treatments of them.
When I listen through the music I have so far, I’m confronted with two layers of action. There’s the individual tracks with their melodies, chords, rhythms, and timbres. The tracks are rather static in that they maintain a coherent identity over the time of the piece. There’s also the processes which these tracks undergo, whether it’s a set of chords arranged into a sequence, the routing of a sound through effects, or the staggering of multiple drum parts to make more complex composite patterns. My most essential task might be to devise sensible meeting points between the tracks as they sound right now and the processes they could undergo to sound different. In other words, I’m trying to build an optimal form for my content.
Not surprisingly, there are no manuals to tell a producer how to approach this ongoing quandary that is essential to the production craft. There are tricks and techniques, but no hard and fast rules. There are moves that have worked in the past, but these moves aren’t necessarily relevant to the present. There are ways to make “cool sounds” but rarely are such sounds ends in themselves. There are strategies used on famous recordings, but repeating them is no surefire route to solving your unique production issues. The best way to learn how build an optimal form for your content is by trying out as many different things as you have the patience to try in order to hear how they sound. Even this doesn’t guarantee success, but it will help you gradually develop your vocabulary of production moves.
And yet, knowing moves is not enough. What you need above all is a general sense of the effect you seek to create. Some producers want a relentlessly bangin’ beat that never varies, while others seek amorphous ambient halos that refuse to commit to a key, let alone a melody. For me, I often search for a music that is both comfortable with being still, yet is also on the move for variations. (Note: be weary of what a musician says about his/her own music—they may just be talking about themselves.) With regards to my just-okay piece, I find it not nearly enchanting enough, or even enchanting at all. It sounds too obvious and it leaves little to my imagination. Surely I can do better than this by altering what I have?
Finally, even if you know the general effect you want to create, there’s never a one-to-one relationship between a production process and a resulting sound that could be perfect for your needs. (Music production is often fascinatingly nonlinear in this way. One way forward is to simply make many tiny changes to the music—that is, to progress it through tinkering on the micro-scale. Tinkering gradually moves you towards the general effect you want. I think of this methodology like hedging a bet about the direction of the piece. My bet is that the effect that I’m chasing after probably won’t be the result of doing one thing, but rather the result of doing of many. My tinkering changes are cumulative, and I’m betting that as they accumulate they just might, at some point, bring me to where I would like to go.